Caring For & Storing Vintage Linens

Monday, January 25, 2010

I am sharing today at Mary's Little Red House for Mosaic Monday. Thanks for hosting, Mary!

I love old linens and always have. I love ALL old linens…quilts, pillow cases, hankies, dish towels, tableclothes…all of them, but I am especially fond of kitchen linens. I remember when I was a little girl and it was my turn to dry the dishes, I always bypassed the lively colored Vera dish towels in my Mom’s kitchen (in the day before Vera was vintage) and dug to the back of the drawer for the hand embroidered flour sack towels made by my Great-Grandma, Lily Caudill Inman. Even then, those whimsical designs would make me smile and I always had to use the correctly labeled day-of-the-week towel.

Using old linens, whether embroidered, embellished with crochet or simple and tailored, creates an atmosphere of nostalgia and warmth in your home. If you are like me and hold on to linens as family keepsakes and rescue them as you happen upon them in antique stores, flea markets and garage sales, you end up with many more lovely examples than you can display at one time. Old linens do require careful cleaning and storage.

Where do you start when you acquire an old tablecloth or set of embroidered dish towels, believe it or not, you start with your vacuum. Vacuuming textiles can be a very beneficial and safe way to remove dust and dirt that can damage and cut fibers, according to the Nebraska Cooperative Extension Office. Use low suction, with vents open. For items too fragile to take direct suction, placing a clean piece of tulle over the cloth will help to protect it during vacuuming. If linens are soiled, it's important to clean them before storing them away for future use. Proper cleaning will keep insects from being attracted to food and grease as well as improving the appearance of the item in most cases. Keep in mind that cleaning should only be done if it will not affect the color, shape and strength of the fabric. Using water on cotton and linen removes acid build-ups and actually makes them more flexible. The extension office also recommends checking fabrics for colorfastness by using a few drops of water in an out-of-the-way place. After the liquid soaks in, blot with white cloth or tissue to see if any color is present. Try it with detergent solutions too before immersing linens and don't forget to check each different color in a multi-colored item. Some conservators recommend using distilled water to reduce the likelihood of depositing lime and iron in your vintage fabrics which can cause deterioration and discoloration over time. When we lived with a well full of iron, I was in total agreement with this recommendation. Now, our water isn’t so hard and the minerals are not such a concern. When you’ve determined the fabric is colorfast, use a mild soap like Fels-Naptha to clean your linens. Never use an automatic washing machine and dryer. If you have discolorations and/or stains, try a lemon juice and salt mixture for removing stains. Another thing you can try is drying the items in the sun to help to bleach out any yellowing. Be careful with this technique. Many conservators believe this is too harsh for fragile fabrics. I tend to chose a day when the sun is dappled by a few clouds and keep out only until dry. Do not drape over the clothes line. Dry cleaning is not recommended for fragile textiles because of friction and abrasion agitation causes as well as the damaging effect of excessive heat and the harsh chemicals involved. If you do chose to dry clean, request fresh or filtered solvent and ask them not to steam or press the linens. Dry your linens flat to avoid mishaping. Linens should be pressed carefully and quickly with a hot iron and starched sparingly.

When storing most linens, avoid folding them. If you are short on storage space, roll your linens as an alternative to folding. Folding stresses fabrics. If you must fold, use acid-free tissues or muslin to ease the stress points. Refolding often to distribute wear will also help to minimize damage. Storing linens flat is ideal. Wrapping or layering in acid-free tissue or muslin will also protect your linens. This is especially important if you store your linens in cardboard, paper, metal or wooden boxes which can deteriorate textiles with direct contact. Unsealed wood (read cedar chests) can stain and damage textiles requiring expensive treatments by professional conservators to reverse. Plastic totes should also be avoided since they do not allow air circulation and could trap moisture inside resulting in mildew....the enemey of textiles. Another issue with plastic totes is that they create static electricity which can draw in damaging dust.

Seems like a lot of fussy steps but with tender care, your keepsake linens can live happily in your home for years and years to come. Now that you know how to care for and store your linens, use them and enjoy them! They will bring a smile to your face!